Ah, la vie en France!
We’ve been here for just over a week, and already have seen so much. But while the sights have been grand, the true highlight since our arrival is that despite heading north we have jumped into the summer season. The weather has been absolutely phenomenal, with clear skies and above 30 degree temperatures… and as of now there is no sign of rain in the forecast. We’re in shorts and t-shirts, having fun shade-searching for the first time, and enjoying the excuse to eat ice cream! We also love seeing the different flowers blooming and the baby animals roaming the fields. The birds are especially lively as of late and act as a lovely alarm clock. Indeed, everything seems better with weather like this, and in France so far there has been much to appreciate.
We spent our first few days cycling in Europe’s largest forest: a vastness of pine which sits along the Atlantic Ocean. This area was once a marsh but was planted for forestry in the 1800s and although its main purpose today continues to be logging, the trails, campgrounds and beaches throughout make it very popular for recreational use as well. We really enjoyed biking along the lengthy cycle paths, and were interested to learn that many sections follow old German supply roads from World War II. Despite this history, the path felt unbelievably peaceful and it seemed we had it all to ourselves. An especially surreal part was that the trees were releasing large clouds of pollen and thus after each day we found ourselves covered in green “fairy dust”.
After a few days following the coast north, we turned inland towards the city of Bordeaux, which is France’s premier wine region (and of course most French would argue it produces the world’s finest). We took a hostel as we needed an address to receive the necessary passport forms and were pleased at the chance to enjoy the city. After a quick shower and trip to the market we headed down the river for a romantic French dinner avec a bottle of Bordeaux. From our bench along the quay we quickly fell in love with the city. Bordeaux has recently undergone a massive urban renewal, with new trams, parks, an improved waterfront and large pedestrian only areas. In partial thanks to these projects, now half the downtown is UNESCO listed. After the sun set we wandered the cobblestone streets and found live music in an eighteenth-century building, and enjoyed the entertainment of a gypsy band playing ‘jazz’.
The following day we were disappointed to discover that the rumours of the French Post were true as the passport package was now two days late. While waiting, we decided to make the best of our situation and embarked on a two day bicycle tour through the Bordeaux area. The first night we found a secluded spot along the shores of the Garonne River where we decided to have dinner and set up camp. The site was perfect, or so we thought, although we did note some oddities. Alec noticed that the colour of the river was quite brown and was carrying a lot of debris, and thought it was flowing in the wrong direction, while Caitlin noticed the docks on the river were more typical of those along the coast. We did not think too much of our observations and since it was now dark crawled into the tent to read some of the information provided by the tourist office. After some time we began reading about the main appellation (wine region) that we would be cycling through (Entre-deux-Mer) and realized that the Latin translation means from the two rivers that flood due to the tide! We quickly poked our heads out the tent, and seeing the water very close discovered firsthand that, despite being sixty kilometres, from the ocean the area is under tidal control. In the pitch black we broke camp in record time. The next morning we woke in a farmer’s field and headed to the river for breakfast, which was now lower, greener, and flowing in the ‘right’ direction!
Despite a hectic night we were prepared for a full day, which included a visit to an organic farm that specialises in ancient legumes, a visit to a wine cooperative, lunch under a tree in a farmer’s field, two winery tours, and a night sleeping beside an eighth century chateau. We enjoyed learning about the wine from this renowned area. The Bordeaux wine region has over 120,000 hectares and 8,000 chateaus (vineyards that are often very bourgeois). The first grapes were planted by the Romans in the first century and the area has since popularized many of the grape varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Bordeaux wineries really pride themselves on being unique and thus 57 different “appellations” have developed, which allow the wine to be very specific.
It was nice cycling along the quiet roads and through the small communities throughout the Bordeaux region and this has continued for us throughout central France. The towns have become much smaller and possess a more medieval feel. Central France is probably the most pastoral section of our trip so far and we have absolutely seen more cows than cars. An interesting part of the area is that it has attracted many British who enjoy the tranquility. We have met quite a few Brits as of late, but we must give an honourable mention to our new friend Cathol (Irish). As we were pulling in to a little fairy-tale town, Cathol ran out of his restaurant to let us know that he had the same bike as us and that he wanted to buy us a drink. Cathol’s family had moved from Ireland four years ago to run this little restaurant and, after they generously offered us one of their spare bedrooms, we enjoyed an evening in their tavern. Our night included delicious food and lots of complimentary drinks and cheese! We also were lucky enough to enjoy a small jazz concert by two Parisian musicians who had nearby cottages. It was a wonderful night!
The next day we hopped back on the bicycles in much excitement as we knew we would ride our bikes to Stephanie Hewson’s house! Stephanie has been teaching English classes for public schools in the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond for the past six months. We arrived at her home and were greeted with much happiness and enthusiasm; reunions are always wonderful but to reconnect with such a good friend is truly priceless. Stephanie is the first “old” friend we have visited since spending time with the Graz crew in November! We have felt very comfortable and relaxed ever since arriving at Stephanie’s, and are happy to see that we were able to pick up our friendship exactly where we left off.
The good company has been augmented by delicious food. Stephanie has fed us wonderfully, and one of our highlights was a dinner of traditional French crepes paired with cider; these savoury treats wrapped up eggs, ham and Emmental cheese in doughy goodness, and we followed this up with sweet combinations for desert. And of course our time with the oh-so-French Stephanie has allowed our taste buds to further explore French cheese, pastry and wine. This country is dangerously delicious.
We also enjoyed meeting some of her teaching colleagues. Gabe (American) and Frederica (German) are both very interesting people who we were able to share quality time and conversation. It is always interesting to hear other foreigner’s perspectives on a place. We were also happy to meet Annette, who is Stephanie’s supervisor from the government. After an absolutely delicious lunch prepared by the friendly Frederica (thank you so much again!) Annette drove us to a small town renowned for pottery, with over 80 potters from all over the world. We have gotten the sense that central France has a very artistic vein running through it, and places like this are certainly a large source of that movement. A highlight was the “cathedral” we visited which was a mosaic garden masterpiece that took 25 years to create. Other cultural highlights of our time with Stephanie include a guided tour of the very large fortress in Saint-Amand-Montrond and a climb up a cathedral bell tower (granting us an incredible view) in the neighbouring city of Bourges.
But as is life, all good things come to an end and we are going to say aurevoir to Stephanie today, but are excited to explore the famous Loire Valley (and Stephanie is excited to begin some more explorations herself as she soon starts six weeks of European travel). In a few days, we will be meeting up with Claire, another Canadian friend who has also spent the year teaching English in France. With good weather in the forecast, many extravagant castles to explore, kilometres of bike paths, and passport documents in the mail, this will no doubt be a good week!
Alec and Caitlin
and a slideshow for your viewing pleasure!